COP26 reflection from Elizabeth Theokritoff
The Ascetic Vision: An Orthodox Christian contribution
A Christian writer from Syria in the sixth century recounts sharing a meal with a wandering monk, and becoming intrigued at how slowly and deliberately the monk was eating. Questioning the visitor later, he was told:
I hope that God will not judge me for having opened my mouth over food which is derived from God’s gift without stretching my thoughts to give praise for His bounty. I hope in His name that I shall not be condemned for having stretched forth my hand to my mouth without every time… similarly stretching forth my tongue to praise and my mind to prayer on behalf of those who labour and sweat and toil to supply my need.
If we were to follow this example in our globalised world, where would we start? And how many other sacrifices would we need to include, such as bearing the environmental costs of production, use and disposal of the things I enjoy? Yet just to try thinking in this way would be an illuminating exercise in appreciating the web of interdependence in which we live, our debt and our responsibility to others in every “mouthful”, every action and decision.
There are two aspects to this monk’s practice: prayer for his benefactors, and also thankfulness.
That is the attitude of one who is conscious of enjoying a free gift, not a right. Gratitude is central to the Christian life: the Eucharist sums up our thanksgiving for all God’s gifts, beginning with the creation of the world. “Thine own of Thine we offer…”, according to the Orthodox eucharistic prayer. But the gifts of bread and wine are not simply “nature”; they represent millennia of plant breeding, human skill, knowledge and technologies, and it is all this that we acknowledge as belonging only to God. Christian tradition is adamant that no sort of “property” is absolute, but always a trust to be used for the benefit of all God’s creatures. This is no less true of intellectual property, such as green technologies. The frequent strictures of the Church Fathers against the rich monopolising resources have obvious relevance to today’s global efforts to respond to climate change; but even while having political resonances, the principle remains personal. It cannot be reduced to obligations on rich countries, apart from the obligations on better-off people everywhere to see that their poorer neighbours and compatriots do not bear the brunt of readjustments.
Easier said than done, indeed. That is why ascetic discipline holds such an important place in Christian tradition, as the way we learn the practice of love. Ascesis (“exercise”) is training for the wrestling match with our self-will, the wants and desires that enslave us and torment us when we cannot fulfil them on demand.
Probably the most familiar ascetic practice is that of fasting. Once integral to the rhythm of life across the Christian world, this discipline is still prominent in the Orthodox Churches: for approximately half the year, we follow a vegan diet (with occasional seafood). Given the environmental cost of heavy meat consumption and the divisiveness of calls to abandon meat and dairy products altogether, it is easy to see why this traditional balance of fasting and feasting might attract attention on purely pragmatic grounds. And indeed, allowing others a fair share of foods that carry a high environmental cost could be seen as a modern form of the “alms-giving” associated with fasting periods. Nevertheless, the aim of Christian fasting is not to eat lower on the food chain. It is to teach us that even something as basic and intimate as what we eat is not just a matter of personal choice and whim: it is part of a relationship, with the Creator and thus with a whole community of His creatures. Such asceticism has far-reaching implications for a time of environmental crisis because it forms persons who are not hostage to their own appetites, but have the freedom to act out of self-giving love.
The present environmental crisis demands changes in aspects of life that we in the developed world have come to take for granted: and this gives a wealth of opportunities to hone that great ascetic tool, obedience. Limitations imposed by limited natural resources or environmental costs give us a way to discipline our wants, to make choices dictated by the needs of others with whom we share God’s world.
Asceticism, then, has to do with seeking obedience and service in our everyday choices, our use of material things. One of its early fruits is a measure of self-knowledge and humility: a recognition of my weakness and my limitations, my utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy. And thus a realisation of our shared creaturely frailty. This makes us aware, certainly, of our fellowship with those less fortunate. But also something else very crucial but less popular: an awareness of fellowship with others who (like us) find change hard, who resent any disruption to the comfortable way of life we have all been led to expect. Humility means recognising that we are not the righteous; nor, in the present case, should we expect to be “pure” of environmentally harmful behaviour, at personal or national level. Imperfections, inconsistencies and falling short are salutary antidotes to self-righteousness, never a reason to stop striving.
Asceticism does not transform only the way we use resources; it radically changes our vision of the non-human creation. As we cease to look at other created things through the fog of our own desire to possess, or even of our own needs, this creates a space of wonder and respect that allows each creature to exist in itself and for its Creator. The more we see things in relation to God, the less readily we will sacrifice them to serve our own grand plans – even that of mitigating the climate disruption that we have precipitated.
 S.P. Brock, “World and Sacrament in the Writings of the Syrian Fathers”, Sobornost 6:10 (Winter 1974), 695.
Elizabeth Theokritoff is an associate lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. She is the author of Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) as well as numerous articles.
One of the most effective things we can do about COP26 is to encourage our government to demonstrate genuine climate leadership in its own laws and policies. And one of the best ways to do that is to support the CEE Bill:
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